Seventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
Care for Earth and Feed the Hungry—One and the Same!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Jesus enacts God’s will to feed the hungry in the desert. Creation provides!
Matthew’s well-known story of the feeding of the five thousand has parallels in the other three Gospels, which, as Carol Dempsey rightly observes, “indicates its prominence and importance in the memory and life of the early church” (New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 157). The church has made important use of this story to communicate God’s steadfast love: as the text says, when Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (14:14). The action embodies themes that have deep roots in the biblical witness and bear weighty social implications. Warren Carter summarizes these, citing texts too numerous to include here,
Jesus enacts God’s will that hungry people be fed. . . Through Jesus’ deed, God acts faithfully to sustain creation in anticipation of the new creation in which God’s reign is established in full and there is abundant food for all . . . Jesus’ act attacks the injustice of the sinful imperial system which ensures that the urban elite are well fed at the expense of the poor. . . Jesus enacts an alternative system marked by compassion, sufficiency and shared resources. His action imitates God’s action in saving the people from the tyrant Pharaoh and feeding them in the desert (Exod 16) (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 305).
Feedings and Eucharist first and foremost meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
The story of the feeding was told against the background of hunger and food shortages, both natural and human-caused, which fell “hardest on those with limited access to resources, especially urban laborers, crafts workers, and traders” living in cities which “lacked institutions and laws to protect people from starvation” (Ibid., p. 264). The church’s interpreters often point to this story, on the other hand, as a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper. As they did in celebrating the Lord’s support then, so we are also now in the Eucharist compassionately welcome into the company of our host, Jesus, who in the “blessing and breaking” of the loaves and fish also gives himself to us, not in spirit only, but also in body (Carter, p. 307; cf. Dempsey, p. 157).
The feast to which we are invited is “the feast of all creation.”
The importance of the story for the church, both early and late, thus magnifies its significance for the church’s care of creation. Two aspects of the reading are particularly provocative. First is that the church has traditionally seen fit to set this story liturgically within worship that includes praise of God for taking this kind of care for “all living things,” indeed, for “all that he has made.” For this, says the Psalmist, “all your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you” (145:10; the verse is not included in the assigned reading, but can easily be added to verses 8 and 9). Here, we thus proclaim, Jesus does what Psalm 145 says God does: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” What Jesus exhibits here is God’s love for the entire creation: “You open you hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (145:14-16; emphasis added). The invitation of Isaiah 55 notwithstanding, with its clear call to human participants, the feast to which Jesus invites us is a feast in which all creation participates!
Jesus is in the desert, outside of empire, benefitting the poor and marginalized
Secondly, Matthew tells us that this event took place in “a deserted place.” Jesus has crossed a body of water, a “withdrawal” that is occasioned by news of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod. This action signals, as William Carter comments, Jesus’ refusal
to play in the tyrant’s world and by the tyrant’s rules. It is to make space for a different reign, God’s empire, marked by life giving structures and compassionate practices such as healing and feeding. Such a space is not found in the urban center with their sharply differentiated society, carefully controlled power, and protected self-interest (cf. 13:53-58). It is found on the margins, in an insignificant place, a deserted place, or wilderness, a place of no use to the elite but of central importance to God’s purposes and very threatening to the center (cf. 2:3-6; 3:1). The beneficiaries are not the powerful but the poor and marginalized (Ibid., p. 305)
The reference to wilderness reminds us of Jesus’ own encounter with Satan at the beginning of his ministry when he, too, suffered from want of food for forty days. In actions that we found key to our understanding of Jesus as the Servant of God who serves God by serving creation (see our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent), he not only refused the political dominion offered him, but also the associated violation of the creation’s integrity—he would not turn stones into bread, neither would he cast himself down to be born up by angels; he will persist in being Servant of God, who serves creation, and refuses to grasp equality with God.
No space in all creation lies outside the reach of God’s grace
Might the reading not then ground the interest of the church in preserving wilderness, first of all as a place set apart to experience God and God’s empire (see our comment on the readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)? Secondly,” wilderness” is a privileged metaphorical setting for the meal of the Eucharist, understood as an event that naturally takes place in “deserted space”—space for which the power elite will resist conservation, if for no other reason than that it provides sanctuary for those who live in opposition to its oppression. To be sure, the other meals that similarly foreshadow the Lord’s Supper take place in a variety of settings—no space lies outside the reach of God’s grace. But this first meal is notable for taking place where the imperial economy of Rome plays no part. When Jesus’ disciples suggest that they should send the people back to the villages from which they came to purchase food, he forbids them. But neither will he feed them by supernatural intervention, such as “turning bread into stones.” Without him resorting to imperial dominion or supernatural power, the people are fed by the simple act of sharing what was already at hand amongst the crowd, which, especially in the context of wilderness, exhibits a remarkable sufficiency of God’s provision.
The disciples join Jesus as servants of all creation
In other stories of miraculous surplus such as I Kings 17 (Elijah) and 2 Kings 4 (Elisha), Carter notes, God is “more than able to meet the needs of God’s people; here, significantly, the “disciples act as servants, a basic identity and praxis in the community of disciples (6:24; 10:24-25; 20:27)” (Ibid., p. 308). So it is in the empire of God. Jesus’ disciples are, as it were, “co-servants” of creation along with Jesus. Disciples play a significant role in both the redistribution of this bounty and in taking “up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full,” a remarkable remembrance of early care for the wilderness.
Care of earth and care of the poor go hand in hand as two aspects of the service of creation
So should it be with our celebration of the Eucharist: Jesus and his disciples share a small amount of bread amongst those who have been gathered, and all always share sufficiently in this abundance. But the community ought always to see that proper care is taken at the end of the meal, to show respect for the place in which it was served. The community that gathers for fellowship following the service should always be mindful that social ministry and care of the Earth are two aspects of the one service of creation. Let there be time for the enjoyment of the congregation’s gardens, prairie restoration, running water, and rain gardens.